02 July 2014

Ingredients for a powerful scene

I thought for the next few months - until it bores me, or I forget - I would make the first week of the month writing craft week. For the next few let's breakdown a scene - think of it as the 'Ingredients of a powerful scene'. What bits and pieces, tricks and tips, can help make a scene powerful and engaging? 

People have said to me: romance is easy thing to write because everyone knows what’s going to happen. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again, they live happily ever after. Easy.

To which I reply: that’s not what makes romance easy to write, it’s what makes it ever so tricksy. If readers know how a book is going to end before they even open the pages, then our jobs as writers is that much more difficult because we have to convince them the book is worth reading. We have to make the book about the journey as much as about the conclusion.

How do we take our readers on that journey? One scene at a time. Let's begin that journey in the natural place, the beginning. 

As your scene opens, in first few lines, It needs anchor and re-engage the reader. People who write episodically (and there's more of that type of fiction coming out on places like Amazon, or fan fiction or internet serial writers), will be thinking about this, because they know their readers have had a break from the story.
But the rest of us should be thinking about it too, because scene changes are often where readers put down a book (a cup of tea, make dinner…). They are also the places where we transition between locations and characters. We don’t want our readers confused, we want them reading. So what does it mean to anchor & re-engage?

Anchoring & Re-engaging

As your scene opens, in first few lines, it needs anchor the reader. Unless you deliberately want you reader confused (which you may) you need to anchor them. You need to make sure your readers knows where they are, & whose point of view (POV) they’re in.

It's good to begin in a moment of action or interaction, something to grab the reader's attention right away (re-engage them in the story), but it's important to remember that your reader experiences your fictional world as your protagonist does. Thus a good scene opening is one that grounds the reader in the main character's perspective. Immediate action that's not grounded in character is just Stuff Happening and can be disorienting for a reader.

Think about the effort you put into the opening lines of the book, whilst quite the same level of effort may not be needed at each scene you should at least be thinking about it. (Remember that not everything has to be done the first time through - editing is the time to make your book shine).


Let's look at some examples. Below are the openings to four sequential scenes from THE UNSUNG HERO by Suzanne Brockmann. I haven't chosen the beginning of the book but the middle-ish, (chapter 8), this is to show that even though the reader is already in the story the writer hasn't stopped anchoring and re-engaging..
Just kick aside the laundry, Kelly had said. It seemed easy enough in theory. Execution, however, was slightly more difficult. Because it seemed to Tom as if most of the laundry that was scattered about the room was underwear. Lacy, silky, completely feminine underwear.
[Anchoring: POV - Tom’s, place - Kelly’s bedroom (because where else would a woman leave her underwear all over the place]
[Re-engaging: Tom’s vulnerable/awkward, also a little humour, we want to see what he’ll do next. Go in her room and finish his task, or give up and try again later, or get distracted from his task]
The printer fell silent, and Tom shut down Kelly’s computer. As he crossed to the door, he had to shake another piece of silk and lace from his foot. Cursing, he took the pictures he’d printed out into the hallway, down the stairs, and into the dining room, only to find Charles and Joe smack in the middle of another argument.
[Anchoring: Still Tom’s POV, but we’ve moved to the dining room]
[Re-engages with clear conflict, the argument which Tom’s walked into – What’s it about & again how will Tom respond]
After hearing at the farm stand that Mrs. Ellis had seen her father and Joe playing chess in the lobby of the Baldwin’s Bridge Hotel, Kelly had been in a real rush to get home. But now that she was here, she paused just outside the door. She could see Tom through the screen, sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by piles of papers and file folders.
[Anchoring: Kelly’s POV, kitchen of Kelly’s home]
[Re-engaging: well she rushed there so we know something urgent is driving her, but she’s paused, what’s important enough to change her action]
“She isn’t going to show.”
David glanced up from putting a new roll of film into his camera to see that Brandon still had on his jeans and T-shirt. “She’ll be here soon. Get changed, will you?”
“No way, bro. Not until she’s here. No point to it. I’ve got places to go, people to see—Sharon, that redheaded cocktail waitress who works the pool the same shift I do? She dropped a major hint she was going to go see the Jimmy Buffett wannabe over at the Marina Grill tonight. She’s definitely mine if I want her.” Bran wandered over to David’s drawing table. “Whoa. Is this Mallory?”
“Yeah.” David had done some preliminary sketches this afternoon, from memory.
“You’re using her just for her face, right? I mean, this body—that’s whatchamacallit… artistic license, right?”
David adjusted the white sheet he’d spread out on the bare wooden floor. “Nope.”
[Anchoring: David’s POV, this is dialogue so it takes a few lines longer but we’re clearly wherever David takes photos/ draws (could be a studio or his home, but it gives the reader enough that they're not lost)]
[Re-engages – I'm going to leave you to think about this one :)  ]
Next time we'll move on from the opening of the scene to the meat, the body, of the scene.

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